Christopher Nolan’s visionary “Inception,” opening Friday (7/16/10), looks at a world in which our very sleeping moments are vulnerable to government (or other) snooping, whether our secrets are merely embarrassing or of extremely high value.
It’s a deliciously layered subject, which Nolan exploits in a story that, itself, is working on more than one level of consciousness.
This is Philip K. Dick territory – the world of shifting realities and seizing the reins of the reality you happen to be in. Or finding your way clear to the “real” reality. Whose reality exactly will that be?
The dream state in which the characters of Nolan’s ingenious film operate is reminiscent of “The Matrix,” another Phil Dick –inspired film. Nolan, whose films include “Memento,” “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” manages to tell a story that operates emotionally on as many levels as it does literally. And it’s frequently working on several different levels at a time.
Yet it never loses its ability to surprise – and contains one of those overwhelming visual moments that become iconic – like that first shot of Darth Vader’s spaceship in the very first “Star Wars.” It’s one of those moments where you recognize immediately that this is a movie trying something that hasn’t been done before.
In this case, it’s a simple shot set on a semi-vacant city street, as Leonardo DiCaprio explains life in the dream to a newcomer to his team, played by Ellen Page. She commands the world, he tells her – and to prove it, she literally folds the horizon in half, like closing a book over on top of the spot where they stand. It’s a stunning effect, dizzying in its scope and meaning.
DiCaprio plays Cobb, an “extractor” in some near future, a thief working in industrial espionage to extract secrets from competitors. He does it by invading their dreams: all very scientific, with sedatives and electrodes and an ability to improvise in someone else’s dream and take control of it.
Cobb is first seen auditioning for a job by trying to retrieve a secret from an Asian businessman named Saito (a droll Ken Watanabe), with his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt). They work their way through the mission, encountering increasing obstacles, including an unstable environment around them: the Asian businessman’s collapsing dream. But even here, Cobb is showing signs of some form of PTSD from doing too much of the work.
Indeed, when Cobb and Arthur hire a new architect (you don’t think cities in dreams build themselves, do you?) named Ariadne (Ellen Page), she spots Cobb’s problem. But he waves her off, because he’s got a bigger job in his sights: The Asian offers him a massive sum if he can plant an idea in someone else’s brain and make them think it was their own to begin with: inception, instead of extraction.
It supposedly has never been done – or, if it has, without consistent and reliable results. To do it, Cobb says, will require taking the subject deep into dream state – so deep that the usual fail-safe (when you die, you wake up) will no longer be in effect. Where will you go? Some sort of limbo, from which escape is virtually impossible.
Oh, and while they’re working against the clock, they have to battle a reverse kind of time-manipulation that comes from descending into dreams within dreams within dreams: the fact that time slows down exponentially the deeper you go. A minute in the real world is an hour in the dream – or a week in the next lower level – or a month in the level below that. The trick is not to get so caught up in the abundance of time in one level that you lose track of how little time you have in the other.
But the variable running through the elaborately plotted dream scenarios that Cobb and his cohort work out is Cobb himself and his inability to get rid of his own memories. Specifically, they are memories of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose death still haunts Cobb. She’s a malign force who shows up unexpectedly, one who always seems to be operating at cross purposes with Cobb and his mission. Can Cobb control Mal’s ability to bleed over from his subconscious into the dream world they’ve invaded?
There are moments early on in the film, where you’ll be guessing: Whose dream is this? Where are we? Are they awake or asleep? But that’s just laying the groundwork – breaking the audience in, as it were – for the stunning complexity of the film’s final hour, when Cobb and his team launch the inception mission.
Their target: the scion (Cillian Murphy) of a brutal British billionaire, whose father is approaching death. The Asian wants Cobb to plant the idea that the heir must break up his father’s multinational, multi-pronged business, a notion that runs counter to the heir’s best interest. But it’s also one that has psychological roots – and that’s what Cobb hopes to work on.
The mission keeps going into deeper and deeper dream levels until Nolan is cutting between action in several different layers of dreams. Each dream has its own challenges and its own possibilities for creating domino-like problems on the other levels where Cobb and crew are working.
DiCaprio has grown into a nuanced and emotionally available adult actor, As he did in “Shutter Island,” he plays a man whose work forces him to be tough and canny, even as his past tortures him to the point where he’s no longer the reliable team leader he’s always been.
And really, it’s his film. Page does a solid job playing Jiminy Cricket to Cobb’s Pinocchio, reminding him of what’s at stake and why he needs to get on top of his problem. Cotillard has a warmth and vulnerability that don’t mask her steely resolve. The rest of the cast does what it needs to without calling attention to itself.
Ultimately, however, this is Nolan’s movie. He’s not literally making this dream up as he goes along, but he certainly is in charge of capturing the feel of being in a dream, where anything is possible if you can think of it. The ingenious notion of invaders on a mission – who have to learn not to get caught up in the dream itself – works exceptionally well because Nolan never quite lets you get comfortable with where you are as a viewer.
“Inception” isn’t perfect. It’s probably a shade too long and repetitive (though, again, so are dreams). But it’s the best major release of the summer, the most fully imagined, dramatically enthralling piece of sci-fi movie-making since “The Matrix.”